Tag Archives: microsoft

Getting organised – a review of online docs and CRM systems – is anything better than Highrise? (Yes)

Imagine you are like me. You find people fascinating, media interesting and computers useful. Perhaps you are, as I’ve been described, “an avid indoorsman.” But projects and organising can be a challenge, especially when practical DIY-type work is involved. As far as I’m concerned, existing picture hooks add to the value of a house.

Now imagine that someone gives you a job which includes looking after a massive public building which is nearly 1000 years old and crumbling in parts, as well as helping to look after the 200+ people who use this building on a regular basis. As the new church warden, that’s my job. Project!

Thankfully, among all those people, no-one is expecting me to become Handy Andy, while there are plenty of people with skills and the desire to get involved. Also, my colleague church warden is a surveyor and extremely handy, and the outgoing warden knows the people, building and systems from over 40 years of being hands on. The only problem is that these guys did things differently and organised differently from me. Most of the how-to knowledge is in their heads and the skills are in their hands, and these aren’t trivial to transfer, especially to people who are different and not like-for-like apprentices. To add to the change challenge, we have a brand new priest-in-charge who doesn’t yet know people or how things get done, and would probably like to know a bit about how things have been going as he sets a new course for where we go next.

So how do we get the jobs done, building to-dos planned, the relationships growing, the people involved, and various bits of practical knowledge passed along towards the next generation of church members and leaders? We know church is God’s kingdom, not our project, and prayer is definitely the starting point. One answer to that prayer has been the provision of systems which help us get stuff done and grow relationships together. I’m going to describe some of what I have used and reviewed, and hopefully it might help if you have any of the same questions.

Projects or people first?

This is the vital starting point. Most project management tools are about the efficient use of resources. You start off defining what needs to get done, then the resources available to get the stuff done (this is where people come in, as well as time and physical assets), and so you fit the people around the projects.

For us, people are the foundation. Those who belong to our community may or may not be involved in any of our projects, but we want to get to know them better and involve people when they want to be involved. When I say “our community” that has very fuzzy boundaries too – we’re all about loving our neighbour, and Jesus enlarges anyone’s definition of that. We enjoy relationships with churchgoers, local residents and businesses, work colleagues, suppliers, friends and families, people we support in mission locally and overseas, people who read our website and listen to our online talks, and others who get in touch for all kinds of reasons. 

Where to put the basic data?

As a starting point we need people’s names, numbers and addresses. Like many organisations, we keep this in a database or spreadsheet on an office computer, where it can’t be accessed it without the administrator. Various trusted people might have copies or printouts at home, but when something needs to be changed, these copies go out of date. If different people put different changes into different copies, getting back in sync with one up to date document can be a major headache. This way of working is BROKEN and needs fixing.

I’ve worked with a client who insisted on doing things the hard way. They were familiar with Microsoft Access, and wouldn’t be persuaded away from it even though they needed others to share the data online. The system they needed was Microsoft Sharepoint. This can be used to keep Office documents in sync with multiple users and, if you’re not a mega-corporation, the cheapest way to use it is something like the £15 per month Microsoft Sharepoint service from 1and1. That buys 1GB of storage space for up to 50 users to share, as well as tools which help structure what goes where, who has access to what, etc. It’s not a bad package if you absolutely, definitely must use Office.

But there are better and cheaper alternatives for making and sharing documents. I’m trying to wean myself and others away from Office and onto Google Documents as much as possible. These are can seem a bit more basic than your latest Office 2010 whizzyware, but it tends to give me what I need – it’s fast, it autosaves all the time (and lets me go back to previous versions), it can be shared securely with the people who need it and edited by them if they have permission. Everyone is always seeing the up to date document, and it can even be edited by more than one person at a time. Contact details and lots more go nicely into a spreadsheet. Ideas and other things fit into documents and presentations nicely. You can even do some decent drawings – this demo is silly but you’ll get the idea.

It didn’t take long to test and reject Microsoft’s answer to this, by the way. In the first 20 minutes of working with Office Web Apps I found their system lost my data from a test document, gave me unhelpful random error messages when trying to use the prominent “Open In Word” facility (I assumed this might be because it didn’t like Chrome, but with IE9 the best I could get was “The converter failed to save the file”), and then I discovered that the final document another reader might see can look completely different from the document I edited in a browser. That takes away the comfortable feeling you get from it looking a lot like Word – avoid, avoid, avoid.

Do you need more than the basics?

There is a bit more to do than simply build a list of contacts. We are growing relationships and doing stuff. We need to keep track of what we’ve talked about doing when. We want to be open to new people sharing their interests and details with us, which they might be able to do online. At any point we might want to get in touch with groups of people with common interests or needs, and follow what happens with individuals as things develop. We certainly need to keep projects and to-do lists under control and share responsibilities where possible. Ideally the church management wants to do all of this as a team without too much training or admin time, and without too many unconnected documents floating around.

The value of being able to do this well in a business means that lots of developers have attempted to solve the problem with what has become known as Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems. Yes, we need to reframe that idea for a church where we don’t have customers and a sales pipeline, but I have found lots of CRM systems potentially useful for us.

Here’s the meat: what I’ve considered and why we’re going with one particular one for now. Our needs are:

  • a system which can make thousands of contacts’ details easy to store and access securely on a PC, iPhone or Android and, ideally, available for reference when any of those devices are not internet-connected (especially important for a mobile device);
  • a flexible data scheme for each person’s info so that we can keep track of some specific things like ministry roles and gifts in a structured, promptable, searchable, standardised way (ie. not just with a big free-form text box) – we’re thinking tags and custom fields here;
  • a way to manage basic to-do lists and projects, linked to people in the database – it should be as simple as possible to get a view of who is doing what, not just what needs to be done. Ideally we’d like all our project management to be in the same system, but we need great people management first, and will settle for basic project management for now, adding a more specialised project system later if needed;
  • a place to store documents or, ideally, links to Google Documents, related to people and projects;
  • a way to attach email correspondence to people’s records and, ideally, manage to-dos and projects by email too – for example, if I get an email asking me to do something, I’d like to forward it to the system in a way which not only stores the email but adds an item to my to-do list;
  • easy ways to contact groups of people, including established groups (e.g. a ministry team) or ad hoc groups of people, such as people in a particular area or those who have expressed an interest in serving the homeless, for example – we should be able to contact groups by email (where permission is given) or make a ring-around contact sheet with as few button presses as possible. To manage email properly, we should be able to sync with Mailchimp, the best value mailing list manager I’ve found;
  • we can tolerate some stuff for sales people in the structure, but ideally need to rephrase things so it is clear to system users that we are not selling stuff, and we are not cramming people into a totally standardised pipeline (from leads to prospects to customers, etc) although we recognise people do go through different stages in life and relationships, and we want to relate to everyone appropriately, so we can use these sorts of tools in our own way…
  • access to the core system for a small number of management users for now (5 or 6) who vary greatly in comfort with IT, so the system should be very easy to use, highly responsive, intuitive and, ideally, attractive. I know that sounds shallow, but people do set their expectations around how things look and are more willing to invest time in making something work if their expectations are high. If it looks and behaves like a boring and complex business megasystem, it will be hard to get buy in from some of the people who need to use the thing if we’re going to find it useful. If it looks easy and is fun to use, we have an advantage.
  • access to selected basic contact data for a wider group of ministry leaders, so ideally we should be able to sync selectively with something like Google Contacts;
  • amazingly good “how-to” and help videos and support, so that we can develop it right, get the keen users productive and satisfied quickly, and at least keep the technophobes on board.
  • ability to get all our data out – offline backups of contacts are essential, and we would ideally like to stay with a service provider merely because they are great and we choose to stay, rather than fussing about the hassle of having our data locked into their system. It’s a sign of maturity and confidence from a service provider than they will let you walk out with all your data at any time.

Highrise from 37signals

A user friendly system with a stack of useful features we might find it hard to live without.

Better than Highrise? Customisable with “supertags” which work in a similar way to Capsule. They are even more useful with options including recurring dates which link to the built in calendar – ideal for keeping track of birthdays and anniversaries. The Social Media supertag doesn’t just hold contact details, it pulls live Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn updates into a contact’s page, and lets you manage all your social media contact making and commenting from Batchbook. Drawing this info together helps build relationship – a user will see it before they make a call or send an email. Another improvement over Highrise is that emails forwarded to the dropbox attach to all relevant records of people in the email’s “To” or “cc” fields, and emails between the same groups of people get drawn up as related communications. Screen space is saved by not displaying much summary information from each email, but lots of info tends to pop up over anything the mouse hovers over. This isn’t ideal for touch interfaces like an iPhone, but on a pointer-driven system it saves a lot of clicks and screen refreshes. Web forms are another big leap forward, allowing people to sign themselves up as contacts and enter information which can be stored in the basic fields or any supertag’s custom fields. It has an iPhone app which stores contacts offline. Plus it integrates really nicely with Mailchimp, Google Contacts (so we can keep live, basic contact lists up to date for other church members) and just about everything else we thought we might need.

So that’s why we are using it – at least to trial.At $30 a month for up to 5 users it is slightly more expensive than Highrise, but only half the price of Capsule and with more stuff. More isn’t necessarily better – usable and useful are what we need – but we’ll see how the team gets on with it.

PS – we also looked at the following, but rejected them because they are too project-centric or sales pipeline-focused, but they still seemed worth evaluating again later if we need separate project tools: BlueCamroo, Clutterpad, Teambox, Viewpath and Pipedrive. And we looked at specialist church management software like The City (a nice bespoke social network, but not much of an external contact manager) and Church Insight (looks good and can drive a website, but they expect 150 church people to have 75 other contacts BETWEEN THEM???! These people are all spending FAR too long in church…)

Note to self: the secret of getting venture capital funding is clearly to pick the right two words to bang together into the product name. As a public service, I’ve searched and found that StuffTray, MessList, ContactBag and CrapCase are all available as dotcoms. Grab them and seize the future… And if you know anyone who makes a good, usable system for church mission where they expect to know more neighbours than kneelers, let me know…

Why our cats “get it” more than Microsoft


I’ve been playing with the idea of drawing a model for how our cats seem to make decisions. I’m not sure why, it seems like it might be fun and, if not exactly useful, maybe an entertaining way into explaining something important one day.

It strikes me there are two major forces at work – comfort and curiosity. Our cats want comfort. They can take any amount of fuss and attention, up to the point where they become uncomfortable (e.g. discovering they didn’t really want a belly scratch after all) and then they will go off and make themselves comfortable elsewhere. The only thing which seems to stop them staying in one comfortable place all day is, I propose, the idea that they might find more comfort somewhere else, and curiosity is their internal drive which pushes them to take occasional risks. They will trade some short term comfort in search of more long term comfort. These cats are not stupid or lazy, but they love comfort a lot.

What’s interesting to me is how comfort and curiosity sometimes oppose each other (“stay here, it’s comfy” is the opposite of “don’t stay here, there might be something better outside”). But a cat makes decisions, judging between opposing options, and not in a random way. Each of our two cats has what we would call “character” or “personality”, its own way of making decisions which we recognise as consistent and different from the other cat. Character and personality are really interesting, and I guess the idea that we might learn something about these things by observing our cats might sound a bit weird. But it seems interesting enough to be worth a go, and I’m sure I’m not the only person to have thought about it.

So I searched online to see who else has explored this area, and found something I didn’t expect. Googling for “cat decision engine” (with quotes, so searching for the exact phrase) produced no results. No-one on the interwebs has ever used this phrase. Woo hoo, I’m a pioneer!

But what does come up when searching for a cat decision engine (without the quotes) is a lot of stuff about Microsoft designing Bing to be a “decision engine” rather than just a search engine. I’m back to asking a familiar question – does Microsoft still “get it”, or has all their cleverness evaporated somewhere along the way?

Well, let’s see how they came up with this “decision engine” idea. The foundation seems solid. My Google search pointed me to this article in which Bing director Stefan Weitz explains that search, in many ways that we currently use it, isn’t broken and doesn’t need fixing. This means there isn’t a big opening for a competitor to Google. So rather than try and do Google’s job 1% better, Microsoft looked to understand better how people use search, where it currently works well, and where it works less well. Sounds like a great start. So what did they find?

It seems that half of the time people search, their sessions are very short. They need an answer to a simple question, they find a fact listed which delivers that answer, job done. Current search engines seem to provide relevant answers quickly and efficiently. It’s the sort of job search engines seem to be designed for.

But the other half of a person’s search time is spent in “a few long sessions”. People are using the internet for more complex tasks than fact finding – booking a holiday, for example – and they may go straight to a specialist site (e.g. Expedia) to do that. However, people seem to use general purpose search engines a lot for this as well, and this takes a while. Weitz reflects on what he thinks this means for the average web user.

“Think of the futility they must be feeling when they are using an engine that’s looking at keywords and links and all of that when they’re trying to book travel. People’s expectations of what an engine should do are changing and they’re using them as a starting point for a lot of their tasks.”

I think I agree with the bit about using search engines a lot to start tasks, but I don’t agree that I must be feeling a lot of futility as I’m searching. 

Maybe I’m unusual, being the curious and investigative type, but I actually enjoy the process of looking around for places to go. I like reading unexpected things people are sharing about destinations and holiday providers, and stumbling over joyously ridiculous sites like www.airlinemeals.net. No, I did not go out of my way to look for pictures of in-flight meal trays, but seeing them makes me think of travel, it reminds me of what it’s like to be on the journey, and it fuels my appetite for the holiday (even if the food itself looks a bit dodgy). 

I’m also inclined to think that while it’s very convenient for Expedia (founded by Microsoft) if I go straight to their site, I’ll only be happy I’ve got the best price if I do some more looking around. Weirdly, even if I only save £5 (less than an hour’s minimum wage) I’ll still feel it was worth an hour’s search time if I can pay less to the holiday company and spend a bit more on food and beer in the sun.

And this is why I think our cats “get it” – I’m doing what they do. I want the comfort of a holiday. I’d like to get that in a convenient way, but I also enjoy employing curiosity in the search process. Time spent searching tends to get rewarded with comforts, sometimes the desired ones (lower price, more money for beer) and more often unexpected ones (a picture of some nice looking sushi-like fruit salad). At the end of all of this search process, my head is stuffed with more facts than I needed, but I get to choose what to hold onto, what to do, how to make a decision.

This is why Microsoft doesn’t “get it”. I don’t need Bing to be a decision engine – my decision engine is in my head. While I need to get a search engine to look for fragments of fact, making the decision is the bit I get to do, and I enjoy it. 

Of course you can pick fault and suggest to me that my process could be far more efficient. Why waste my time when Microsoft Decisionbot 2011 can tell me the best holiday for the best price, or at least lay out all my options on one convenient page for me? I’m sure there is a market which wants exactly that. I’m not sure as it’s as big as Microsoft think it is. Even if we trusted Microsoft and their decision engine 100% (which I doubt we will ever do), there’s a fundamental problem with their strategy.

Engineers look for efficiency. People enjoy the unexpected by-products of inefficiency. It’s how we discover things, meet people, start relationships and, when we reflect on what made us happy and what made us mad, form the character which helps us make our next decisions. Without that character, we would be boring, predictable machines, which our cats are not.

So in this roundabout and rather unexpected way, I’ve yet again come to the conclusion that Microsoft don’t get it while, surprisingly, our cats do.


More proof that Microsoft no longer get it


For reasons you don’t want me to go into, I have to make a Venn diagram. Is Excel going to be any help?

According to Microsoft, yes! It’s easy to create overlapping circles and make them into pretty colours. The video tutorial is voiced by someone who sounds extremely proud of this, and finishes with a chipper “THAT’S how I want my Venn diagram to look!”

Except it’s extremely useless. I don’t know if anyone at Microsoft stopped to consider that Venn diagrams are supposed to mean something, not just look harmonious with your document theme.

For one thing, I need to crunch numbers and get areas and overlaps which are proportional to my data – none of that is mentioned. 

It’s not too surprising, given that the example Venn diagram is set up to show all the overlaps between birds and mammals (errr… there isn’t any) and… I’m sorry, I can’t even imagine an invertebrate amphibian mammal bird reptile even if one had ever existed. Which it didn’t.

Microsoft were the company which re-thought the world, brought the cleverest, most useful tools, and made billions in the process. When did it all become about style over function (**cough** Vista)? And if Microsoft no longer get it, who does?